The ruins of the ancient city of Angkor, capital of the Khmer kingdom from 802 until 1295 A.D., are one of the world's marvels. The "City of Kings," Angkor boasts some of the largest religious monuments ever constructed; it's a vast and mysterious complex of hulking laterite and sandstone blocks. Unknown to the world until French naturalist Henri Mouhot literally stumbled onto it in 1861, the area of Angkor existed for centuries only as a myth -- a wondrous city (or cities, to be exact), its exact location in the Cambodian jungle unknown. After Mahout in 1861, archaeologists flocked here, only to be foiled by years of conflict that left the temples in the hands of the Khmer Rouge. Many temples were damaged and pillaged. Tourists were the subsequent invaders, from the late 1990s. Today the sight is mobbed, but you can still find those quiet moments in communion with this amazing man-made wonder.
The temple complex covers some 97 sq. km (60 sq. miles) and carries the remains of passageways, moats, temples, and palaces that represent centuries of building in the capital. Days spent scrambling about and exploring the temples are memorable, and this is a great place to bring adventurous kids of all ages who like to get their play clothes dirty.
The temples are served by the nearby town of Siem Reap, some 6km (3 1/2 miles) to the south. Siem Reap means "Victory over the Thais" and refers to the 16th-century victory that solidified the Khmer kingdom -- though animosity between the two neighbors remains to this day. All of western Cambodia was once under Thai control, and Khmer people are very proud of their survival in the face of so many invaders, the very reason that an image of Angkor Wat graces the national flag.
Siem Reap, once just a dusty track with a few storefronts, now supports a host of large five-star hotels and resorts, fine-dining options aplenty, and the kind of good services, shops, galleries, and spas, that make the little city a new oasis of luxury in parched western Cambodia. The town's central market is a great stop for souvenir purchases, and the nearby downtown area is abuzz day and night with fine-dining options and quaint bars and party spots.
A 3- or 4-day visit will suffice (though many do it in less time) to come away with a newfound love for ancient cultures, Asian religions, and sunsets. Good options abound for visiting more far-flung temple ruins (in fact, one of the most common complaints is about the large crowds that now visit Cambodia's "Disneyland of Temples") and trekking or boat trips to remote mangrove swamps and a large bird sanctuary are enough to keep you busy for a stay of any length. Bring your sense of adventure, your camera, and a youthful sense of wonder. You won't be disappointed by amazing Angkor.
Give of "Yourself" in Siem Reap
They want your blood in Siem Reap. Many humanitarian-aid agencies use Siem Reap as a base for raising funds and treating rural peoples. The Kantha Bopha Hospital, on the main road to the temples, and the Angkor Hospital for Children (contact them through www.fwab.org or tel. 063/963-409) are always looking for blood donors to help young patients through the most trying periods of acute dysentery and hemorrhagic fever. Patients often make it to these centers from rural parts in dire circumstances and need immediate blood transfusions to make it through their first days. Just show up at either clinic to make a donation of blood, time, and/or money -- all of which are desperately needed.